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Virgin is facing a brand nightmare after its cruise giveaway went horribly wrong

Mikhaila Friel   

Virgin is facing a brand nightmare after its cruise giveaway went horribly wrong
  • Virgin Voyages faces backlash after a free cruise winner said she has to pay $8,000 in flight costs.
  • The cruise line's Australia voyages were canceled due to tensions in the Red Sea.

Virgin Voyages is dealing with a PR nightmare after a woman who won a free cruise said she'd have to pay $8,000 in flights to claim her prize.

The adults-only cruise line, owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Group, is known for giving away free prizes to promote its various international sailings across Australia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

An Australian woman, who used the pseudonym Morgan, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that she and other passengers were gifted free twin-share cruise vouchers while on a Virgin flight from Melbourne to her home in Tasmania in November.

Morgan said she used the voucher to book a cruise out of Brisbane for herself and her partner. However, in February, the company announced that all of its Australia voyages were canceled due to tensions in the Red Sea.

A spokesperson for Virgin previously told Business Insider that it had offered all prize winners new complimentary vouchers for cruises on its other international sailings.

But Morgan said traveling to Europe or the Caribbean is unfeasible, as it could cost her and her partner up to $8,000 — more than the $7,000 value of the voucher.

Experts say Virgin should cover the cost of the flights or offer a different prize

Tenile Clarke, a managing director and principal publicist at Chambers Media Solutions, told BI that Virgin should "definitely offer" to pay the cost of the flights.

"Ultimately, this decision boils down to sound reputation management, and the negative publicity that can come from this for Virgin is a significant lesson in the brand's understanding that every customer is a potential ambassador for the product and experience that you offer to any community," Clarke said.

She said this incident is the "antithesis" of Virgin's brand values, which comprise "generosity and lasting social impact."

"While I don't think it will hurt on a macro scale, I do believe that they have to look at their reputation as one of the largest airlines operating in Australia — it's one of their largest source markets," Tenille said.

Balkrushna Potdar, a marketing lecturer at the University of Tasmania, told ABC that this incident may cause customers to lose trust in Virgin's brand.

"The winner's negative experience may become a cautionary tale dissuading potential customers from engaging with the brand," he said, adding that the company should cover the cost of the flights.

Speaking to ABC, Morgan said Virgin's PR team "stopped responding" to her messages after she pointed out how expensive the flights would be.

"We were genuinely shocked, we thought Virgin would provide us with an alternative prize like a flight credit… or they would allow us to rebook on a later season," Morgan said.

"They sort of gave up on us … like 'you're a bit of a problem now,'" she said.

Emma Cruises, a British travel blogger and cruise expert with around 330,000 YouTube subscribers, told BI that it could be unreasonable to expect Virgin to pay for the flights for every person affected by the Australia cancelations.

"The winners shouldn't be expected to pay for flights to claim their cruise, but I also wouldn't expect Virgin to pay for flights for every guest as it wasn't part of the original prize," Emma said.

"I'm sure that the winners would be happy with an alternative like Virgin gift cards to the value of the cruise, which could be used for Virgin Holidays, flights or experience days," she added.

Virgin Voyages declined to comment when contacted by BI for this story.

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